Mexico – The Other Great American Melting Pot


There is no doubt about America’s leadership as the country created by immigrants. We massacred or fatally infected most of the natives. But one normally does not think of Mexico as a country of immigrants. We tend to believe that Mexico is a homogenous, catholic country where only Spanish is spoken. Not true.

To begin with, unlike the United States, 65% of Mexico’s population is indigenous. A significant percentage do not speak Spanish. The Naramuri tribe, in the copper canyons of Chihuahua, are an example. The Spaniards called them Tarahumara. Young Naramuri learn spanish in government schools. But, older generations speak only their native dialect.. In the Maya region of Mexico, especially the state of Chiapas, there are over 14 different native dialects spoken in lieu of Spanish.

The approximate racial make up of Baja California is: forty percent European, thirty six percent Mestizo, nine percent east Asian (predominantly Chinese, Japanese and Korean) and the remaining fifteen percent is Native American. Mostly of Mexican and Central American origins, and includes Cherokees from the U.S.. They settled in Northwest Mexico in the 1850s. Less than one percent of Baja’s population is Black African.
In the 15th century there were more black slaves in Mexico than in North America. Mexico being the central marketplace for slaves sold and sent North to America and South to various islands in the Caribbean It is estimated that a third of all Mexicans have African descendents in their lineage. The African influence is most apparent in the states of Vera Cruz and Guerrero.

Aside from indigenous languages of Kumai and Pai Pai spoken in Baja California, you can hear fourth generation Russians in the Valle de Guadalupe still speaking their native tongue. A sect of The Russian Orthodox church, referred to as Molakan, they fell out of favor and were being persecuted. Fleeing Russia in 1860, as farmers, they intended to settle in the fertile valleys of California. But, were blocked from migrating to The United States. The alternative was the nearby Ensenada Valley of Guadalupe. An ideal match for their skills as knowledgeable agronomists. The church today, maintains a devout and active group of parishioners. And, services are still performed in Russian.

One of the oldest cantinas, in all of the Californias, is Hussongs in Ensenada. Johan Hussong, along with two of his brothers, immigrated to New York from Forsham Germany in 1880. After ten years of big city life, in 1890, Johan set an exploratory course to the Southwestern frontier. And, found the fishing village of Ensenada to his liking. Five thousand inhabitants, at that time, mostly North Americans and Europeans. Johan became John and in 1892 he opened the restaurant and stage coach stop known as John Hussong’s Agency and Diligencia where he welcomed the Southland Stage Company and its passengers. In addition to food at Hussong’s, you could get a nickel beer and a dime whiskey. While travelers enjoyed food and drink, their horses could also be fed, watered and shoed out back – now the Hussong’s parking lot.

From the rich and famous like Bing Crosby, Steve McQueen and Marilyn Monroe, to the average Baja tourists and locals: sipping a Margarita at it’s birthplace and singing along with the live mariachi, in a joint over a 110 years old, is a Baja tradition. I successfully relive the Hussong’s experience as often as possible. The drinks are cheap, never watered down, and the entertainment a bonus. The best people watching on the Pacific Coast.

In October 1941, the famous Margarita was invented by Hussong’s bartender Don Carlos Orozco. He was constantly experimenting with liquors to create new cocktails. His original recipe was tequila, lemon juice and Damiana (a native Ensenada plant). At that time, the daughter of the German Ambassador lived in Ensenada at Hamilton Ranch. Her name was Margarita Henkel. She was the first to try Carlos’ new concoction so, in her honor, he named the drink Margarita.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, over 90% of the population in Mexicali, State Capitol for Baja California, were Chinese laborers consigned to turn desert lands into farmable acreage. The Imperial Canal, which diverts water from the Colorado River to irrigate California’s Imperial Valley, also serves Baja’s Northern desert. It was completed in 1902, mostly by Chinese labor. And the resultant crops, were also planted by the Chinese. Today, the basin is Baja’s bread- and fruit-basket. The capital’s ethnic mix still reflects the history of the region. In La Chinesca, the city’s Chinatown, numerous shops serve up chau men (a variation on chow mein), while others sell all of the expected oriental curios.

I immigrated from my native Oakland to Ensenada in 1985. Just another expatriate escaping an uncomfortable reality at home. Oakland became Cokeland in the 80’s and consequently too tough for this old homeboy. I joined the law firm of Juan Antonio Sanchez Zertuche in Ensenada. Zertuche’s grandfather, of Italian ancestry, was a general in the Mexican revolution. This allowed him the privilege of carving up Baja California with two other generals, Rodriguez of obvious Spanish heritage (most of San Felipe was his) and Clark of English parentage.

My favorite Pizza joint in Ensenada is owned by a third generation Mexican -Lebanese by the name of Elias Saad. The Saad family came as haberdashers in the 1920’s and now, heirs of the family permeate the political, legal and commercial landscapes of Ensenada. My closest friend is Arturo Novelo, of Spanish origin. Arturo’s uncle is one of the most respected hotel owners in Baja. And Arturo is the Remax broker in Ensenada.

Baja California, Mexico: A state and a country where foreigners have always been drawn too and welcomed. So from just another émigré: I say welcome ya’all. (Bienvenidos). And enjoy it to the best of your ability.

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